The classic thought experiment…

chris snowdon bio photo

Guest post from Christopher Snowdon, Author, writer of ‘ Velvet Glove, Iron Fist‘ blog and Director of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

It is my contention that the anti-smoking lobby, like the public health lobby in general, is made up of three groups: those who are genuinely concerned about health, those who hate industry, and those who are old-fashioned puritans. Until recently, I would have added a fourth group – those who hate the smell of tobacco smoke, but they are becoming increasingly redundant in ‘smokefree’ countries. A good prima facie case for this contention can be made by studying the anti-smoking movements that arose sporadically between the seventeenth century and the 1930s, ie. before there was clear evidence of negative health effects. Many of these pre-modern anti-smoking groups were quite overtly rooted in religious and moral traditions. A hatred of ‘vice’ is a feature of all societies to a greater or lesser extent.

The classic thought experiment is to imagine how these putative health groups would react to the creation of a safe cigarette. In this hypothetical situation, those who are genuinely concerned with health would be delighted while the moral crusaders and anti-industry fanatics would be inconsolable. Thanks to the e-cigarette, this scenario is no longer hypothetical and what a litmus test it has been for those of us who have always wondered how many zealots and opportunists were masquerading as health campaigners. (Note: I’m tired of describing e-cigarettes as ‘reduced harm products’ or ‘99 per cent safer than smoking’. They have been in use for over a decade and no one has been harmed by them, as far as I know, nor has anyone identified any plausible mechanism by which they could cause disease. Unless the evidence changes, I will consider them to be at least as safe as walking down the street or travelling by train. They are safe enough, particularly considering the alternative.)

By this test, it appears that rather a lot of anti-smoking campaigners are not very interested in health. Indeed, if we are to judge them by their actions rather than their words, they are positively anti-health. Let’s name names. It turns out that Simon Chapman, an Australian sociologist who spent his younger days vandalising cigarette billboards is – surprise, surprise – more interested in fighting industry than helping people quit. It turns out that Stanton Glantz, the founder of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, is no longer concerned about nonsmokers’ rights (if he ever was) and is much more interested in stopping people using non-pharmaceutical nicotine. The British Medical Association holds the patently fanatical view that e-cigarettes should be banned indoors because they look a bit like cigarettes. Bans on indoor e-cigarette use are currently spreading across the USA based on distinctly moral objections against the use of a mild drug.

The arguments against e-cigarettes – ‘gateway hypothesis’, ‘dual use’, ‘renormalisation’ etc. – are so absurd that I won’t insult those who employ them by assuming that they are sincerely held. They are fig leaves used to conceal their true motives; motives that have nothing to do with health. It is well known that the ‘public health’ lobby is divided on e-cigarettes, and so it is. It is divided between those who want to help people improve their health and those who are want to pursue their political and puritanical obsessions. At the moment, the latter are in the majority. Perhaps they always have been.


8 thoughts on “The classic thought experiment…

  1. I’m sure something like this is what’s happening. There’s absolutely no rational reason to restrict peoples use of these products which (as you say) appear to be perfectly harmless to all concerned. Certainly they are considerably less harmful than tobacco or even wine or beer.

    So why the war on vaping? Two obvious reasons I can think of are sheer spite on the part of a noisy band of self righteous **icks and the vested financial interest of certain pharmaceuticals companies (not to mention governments, the last thing they want is loss of tobacco tax revenue whatever “official” health policy may be).

    Every self righteous **ick knows that smokers are dirty, evil and selfish people who should jolly well be made to suffer, one way or another. Vaping is letting them off the hook scot-free! It’s not fair! There should be a law against it! Oh wait..Yes, it seems the EU are only too happy to oblige.

  2. Chris, I think I can probably claim credit for popularizing that thought experiment (though, of course, it has been independently derived numerous times). In particular, back in c.2005, when I coined and started pushing the term “anti-tobacco extremists” in order to push back against the myth that they were public health people, I defined it in terms of that: anyone who would still object to tobacco use even if it were completely harmless, which is the most extreme anti-tobacco position I could imagine. The term fell into disuse because CASAA’s “ANTZ” is so much catchier and because some people (most notably, you) pushed hard on the message (my paraphrase), “hey, if they want to call themselves public health, we will use it as a derogatory term, and if the real public health people don’t like it, they can step up and try to reclaim it themselves.” I pretty much gave up my term in favor of those two, except when I am using it very technically.

    And you definitely do have a point. This phenomenon is not limited to tobacco use. Public health people generally seem to prefer that someone is harmful. I remember conversations at epidemiology meetings, with a few of us marveling at the disappointment expressed by researchers who found that a particular exposure was not killing people.

  3. As one who has campaigned to reduce smoking for the past three decades, I basically agree with Snowdon’s description of the anti smoking lobby as being comprised of real public health advocates, those who hate industry, and old-fashioned puritans.

    But the key reason why the two latter groups (i.e. industry haters and puritans) have become so powerful during the past decade is because large drug companies and government health agencies have given them billions of dollars (while giving very little if any money to real public health advocates whose goal has always been to reduce smoking).

    Here in the US, virtually every organization that has demonized and/or lobbied to ban the sale or use of e-cigs has received massive amounts of money from Big Pharma and/or Big Government (to demonize and lobby against e-cigs).

    Bill Godshall
    Executive Director
    Smokefree Pennsylvania
    1926 Monongahela Avenue
    Pittsburgh, PA 15218

  4. Pingback: The classic thought experiment… | vapeforlife

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